Kiwi Joe Sch­midt has a chance of adding to Irish rugby’s sto­ried his­tory this week­end.

Kiwi Joe Sch­midt has a chance of adding to Irish rugby’s sto­ried his­tory this week­end.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Paul Thomas

At Aviva Sta­dium in Dublin this week­end, the All Blacks come up against a team that’s a prod­uct of ge­og­ra­phy rather than po­lit­i­cal his­tory: it rep­re­sents an is­land rather than a na­tion. In 1922, the is­land of Ire­land was split into the Irish Free State, sub­se­quently the Repub­lic of Ire­land, and North­ern Ire­land, which is part of the United King­dom. The rugby au­thor­i­ties ef­fec­tively de­cided to ig­nore this mo­men­tous de­vel­op­ment and Irish rugby has re­mained a sin­gle, trans-na­tional en­tity ever since, not­with­stand­ing re­li­gious divi­sion, po­lit­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal di­ver­gence – the repub­lic was neu­tral dur­ing World War II – and the 30 years of sec­tar­ian strife eu­phemisti­cally known as “the Trou­bles”.

The big pic­ture in­truded only a cou­ple of times: when a test was staged in Belfast in 1954, play­ers from the repub­lic de­clared they wouldn’t stand for God Save the Queen. The Bri­tish na­tional an­them wasn’t played and 50 years would elapse be­fore Ire­land next took the field in Belfast.

In 1972, Scot­land and Wales de­clined to travel to Dublin for Five Na­tions Cham­pi­onship fix­tures in the city af­ter play­ers were sup­pos­edly threat­ened by the para­mil­i­tary Irish Repub­li­can Army (IRA). Eng­land went ahead with their game, re­ceiv­ing a fiveminute stand­ing ova­tion from the Irish crowd, and oblig­ingly los­ing the match. At the af­ter-match din­ner, Eng­land cap­tain John Pullin said,

“We might not be very good but at least we turn up.”

While Ire­land hasn’t tra­di­tion­ally been one of the game’s heavy­weights, Irish rugby has pro­duced more than its fair share of per­son­al­i­ties and no­ta­bles. Among them are wild boys such as Mick English, whose party trick dur­ing the 1959 Lions tour of this coun­try was belt­ing out in­cen­di­ary, anti-English repub­li­can songs, and Wil­lie An­der­son, who was ar­rested for sou­venir­ing a flag from a lo­cal govern­ment of­fice while tour­ing Ar­gentina with a club side in 1978. He spent three months in prison but got off lightly given that some in Ar­gentina’s rul­ing mil­i­tary junta re­port­edly wanted him put up against a wall. To give that con­text, the junta’s “dirty war” against do­mes­tic op­po­si­tion ac­counted for an es­ti­mated 30,000 peo­ple, eu­phemisti­cally known as “the Dis­ap­peared”.

When the All Blacks played

Ire­land in 1989, An­der­son led a re­sponse to the haka that took him within kiss­ing range of the vis­i­tors’ cap­tain, Buck Shelford. An­der­son said af­ter­wards, “We won the dance but lost the match.”

An­other larger-than-life fig­ure is Tony O’Reilly, who played for Ire­land and the Lions at 18, and at 33 and still play­ing the game turned down the of­fer of a se­nior po­si­tion in the Irish govern­ment to be­come boss of Amer­i­can food gi­ant HJ Heinz’s UK sub­sidiary.

O’Reilly went on to be­come Ire­land’s first bil­lion­aire, but his fall was as spec­tac­u­lar as his rise: he ended up bank­rupt and be­lea­guered by

cred­i­tors in the var­i­ous coun­tries in which he had busi­ness in­ter­ests and main­tained grand res­i­dences. Be­fore it all turned to cus­tard, how­ever, he’d taken the sen­si­ble pre­cau­tion of mar­ry­ing a Greek ship­ping heiress.

And is there any­one in rugby whose achieve­ments match those of Syd Mil­lar? He played 37 tests for Ire­land and went on three Lions tours; in 1974, he coached Ire­land to the Five Na­tions Cham­pi­onship and the Lions on their un­beaten sweep through South Africa; he se­lected and man­aged Irish and Lions teams, was pres­i­dent of the Irish Rugby Foot­ball Union and, fi­nally, chair­man of the In­ter­na­tional Rugby Board, now World Rugby.

To­day, though, the pre-em­i­nent fig­ure in Irish rugby is Kawakawaborn, Woodville-raised Joe Sch­midt, whose coach­ing jour­ney be­gan at Palmer­ston North Boys’ High School. Af­ter stints with Bay of

Plenty, the Blues and French club Cler­mont, Sch­midt suc­ceeded cur­rent Wal­la­bies coach Michael Cheika at Irish prov­ince Le­in­ster. He be­came Ire­land coach in 2013, in which ca­pac­ity he has col­lected three Six Na­tions ti­tles and an All Blacks scalp (Chicago, 2016.)

Sch­midt, whose con­tract ex­pires af­ter next year’s World Cup, is the hottest coach­ing prop­erty in world rugby, a sta­tus un­der­lined by Richie McCaw’s view that he should be the next All Blacks coach. At least, that’s how the head­line writ­ers in­ter­preted McCaw’s com­ments; on close in­spec­tion, they proved to be some­what less cut and dried.

The Irish are des­per­ate to keep Sch­midt; New Zealand Rugby is keen to have him in the mix. Sch­midt says he’ll make a de­ci­sion by the end of this month, which, coin­ci­den­tally, is when All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will de­cide whether he wants to stay on be­yond next year.

Sch­midt, whose Ire­land coach­ing con­tract ex­pires af­ter the World Cup, is the hottest prop­erty in rugby.

Let’s do it again: Ire­land’s Rob Kear­ney (left) and Jamie Heaslip cel­e­brate beat­ing the All Blacks in 2016.

From far left, Joe Sch­midt, Tony O’Reilly.

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